Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Why free school meals are a good thing

By nutritionist Amanda Ursell

Pupils at Walnut Tree Walk Primary School in London sat down to lunch with Nick Clegg last December. But not everyone's so impressed with the School Food Plan…  

Free school meals for all infant school children in English primary schools became a reality with the start of the autumn term. So how come some people are against them?

The provision of free school meals for all children in reception classes and years one and two was a key recommendation of the independently produced School Food Plan, published by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent in July last year.

You don’t have to look far for vocal dissenters of the scheme – complaints include kitchens not being ready, meals not being balanced and the bad economics of offering free meals for children of parents who could afford to pay.

As a nutritionist, I find it hard to see that a programme that sets out to provide every small child aged five to seven with a balanced meal at lunchtime can be a bad thing.

Pilot studies in Durham and Newham in London, carried out between 2009 and 2011, have shown that the children who were given healthy, free school lunches were two months ahead academically, compared with their non-free school meal contemporaries. They revealed an increase of almost 25% in the consumption of vegetables, an 18% reduction in the consumption of crisps, a reduction in sugary drinks and an increase in water as the drink of choice.  

I’ve also heard fantastically positive success stories from head teachers and school cooks who believe that classes of children who eat together and learn together, whatever their backgrounds, is a good thing.  

The bottom line is that children concentrate better, feel better and probably, as a result, behave better (allowing a teacher to do their job with fewer interruptions), when they’ve eaten good food.

Some lunches may not yet be nutritionally ideal, some school head teachers not fully engaged, some school kitchens and cooks not fully ready and up to speed, but it’s a work in progress and we need to look at the longer term.

The school lunch system needs ‘customers’ to survive: the more children eating at school, the better the meals and service can be. So, once they’re in the system, it’s hoped that those entitled to continue to have funding for their lunches will do just this, while those who can afford to pay also continue.

Whichever way you cut it, I’m a supporter. I hope we see the scheme succeed and, crucially, that the children for whom it's intended benefit nutritionally, academically and socially through the simple pleasure of being able to sit round a table and enjoy lunch with their friends.   

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